The Devil and James Harden

Much has been written in the short time since James Harden was unceremoniously traded from Oklahoma City to Houston.  It seems silly that we’ve written so much.  Even after three games, we don’t know how he’ll fare as a Rocket.  We don’t know why he or his agent made the decision to turn down Sam Presti’s offer.  We don’t know the details half as well as we pretend to.  But the trade was shocking- it’s altered the landscape of the league, even- so we have to write something.

The trade effectively broke up the greatest trio of young ingénues in the game.  All three are superstars- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Harden- but it was more than that; they were all best friends, or so it seemed from our vantage point.  This is a sad situation.  I don’t care what anybody says- OKC beating Miami looks hopeless now.  Not only that, but they’ve sent my favorite Thunder player to a city where he’s not going to win in the postseason.  Bottom line is, it feels as if potential has been squandered- the Thunder’s potential, Harden’s potential, even KD’s and Russ’s.  Something people had been dreaming of won’t happen.  Oklahoma City won’t win a championship with its core players.  It’s over, and I hate when things are over.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important.  Durant will win a title someday- he’s too good not to.  Heck, I’m even willing to admit Oklahoma City will probably still win at least one title with its current lineup.  Everyone will make money.  I’ll go on with my life.  This too shall pass.

But this whole situation has opened my eyes to the reality of our idolization of athletes.  We turn athletes into extensions of ourselves.  As fans, we say, “We threw that game away, our defense shut them down, they couldn’t stop us, etc.”  Whether or not this is healthy (probably not), we definitely do it.  I definitely do it.

So when I heard Harden had been traded,* I felt genuine sadness.  I felt real loss.  I don’t even know Harden.  Why should I be so sad?  Highlights were replaying in my head- Harden driving through 3 Dallas defenders in the playoffs to dunk the ball at the rim, Harden cutting baseline for a dunk over Lakers defenders, Harden stepping back after my boy Ginóbili attempted a steal and draining a go-ahead 3.  I tried to wrap my mind around why.  I didn’t want to believe it.  It seemed such a waste- how could Sam Presti waste such an opportunity?  Was Harden just being greedy?  Some people didn’t begrudge him his search for a max deal, but I did.  I still do.

I just read a book called The Devil and Sonny Liston about the famous world champion boxer.  Liston was a huge talent, but he was surrounded by bad, bad people.  The media made Sonny Liston into the bad guy, the tough guy, so Liston ended up living that out, falling into drugs, abusing women, mob dealings.  Eventually, Liston overdosed.  The media wrote his story for him.  By having certain expectations of him, the media essentially guaranteed that Liston would live down to them.  The book reminded me of today’s athletes- Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Dez Bryant.  We wrote Lebron’s story- cast him as an underachieving talent, and for 8 years he lived that out.  Thank goodness he’s breaking free of that mold.  We’re writing Dwight’s story now- a selfish, immature superstar.  If that’s how the media continues to portray him, it’ll be nigh impossible for him to change.  It’s far too easy for athletes or celebrities to live into what the world at large says about them.  Look at what Dez Bryant has become- low expectations for his character certainly aren’t helping him.

I’ve heard things about Harden that portray him in a less than favorable light.  I’ve read articles about his partying and heard questionable things about his choice of girlfriends.  Can I just be honest?  All of this plays into the idea that he left OKC for more money rather than stay for the chance to win a championship with his friends.  Which option seems more pure to you?  How can he walk away?  I’ve judged him, like many others.  I’m letting the media portrayals of Harden color my own perception of him.

But I don’t want to write his story for him.  I don’t want us to expect him to be motivated by the money, the lifestyle, the girls.  That won’t help.  It will only hurt him.  I grow tired of rooting against people.  I no longer want to root against Lebron.  He accomplished something major this year and appeared to grow up a ton in the process.  Did I accomplish anything by rooting against him?**

It won’t do good for me to remain mad at Harden.  Sure, I can be sad about it.  That’s natural.  But not mad.  I should pray for him instead- pray that he excels in Houston and earns his max contract, pray that he uses his money well.  I should pray that Jeremy Lin is a good influence on him.  I should pray for his soul, that God would draw Harden to Him.  It’s not silly to pray for someone I’ve never met.  What better way to combat the media machine that picks over athletes their entire careers?  I know prayer works; I know God uses my pleas.  This whole fiasco has spurred me to judgment of Harden, but really, it’s an opportunity to pray for another soul.

I’ll root for Harden.  His personal life is his business, as was his decision to go to Houston.  Holding it against him would only make me tired.  If he’s truly made a deal with the devil, then that’s his choice, and all the more reason to pray for him.  If he made the right choice, then it’s going to be truly exciting to see him be the face of a franchise.

*Granted, I heard the news in the middle of a game in which my Sooners were laying down and letting Notre Dame run and pass all over them, so maybe I should be granted some clemency for my emotional response.

**It’s one thing to root against the Heat and want them to lose- but to root against an individual?  I know this happens all the time in sports fandom, but I’m tiring of it.

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